#150 : Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise

I remember an old trailer for this movie from the VHS era… “Another time, another land, another chance…” … a very generic and perhaps simple saying, but in terms of the 1987 film Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (long title?), it fits perfectly. This movie is very familiar, very foreign, very optimistic, very nostalgic and very, very well done in terms of craft from the writing to the drawing and even the animation itself. A highlight and perhaps one of the top tier examples of Japan’s output from the 1980s… Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise is still a classic among classics.

WoH_1Before the likes of Gurren Lagann, FLCL, some little franchise by the name of Evangelion and even Gunbuster (GUNBUSTA!), a studio by the name of Gainax was a group of young upstart animators, artists and otakus who had the entrepreneurial spirit to make anime there own way. They earned their reputation from creating several short films made at conventions which exuded the love and obsession for all that was anime and science fiction that permeated their youths. Certain early OVAs would feature these young artists and often times the Chocolate Panic Picture Show is sited as their first commercial project. Maybe, or maybe not? Yet the production that cemented Gainax as a studio and gave birth to the studio we know today was Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise. Enter a time when a bunch of upstarts could coax funds from the likes of Bandai and create something completely out of left field. Anything is possible!

WoH_2Many titles from the 1980s are often significant of the era, they are time capsules and in many ways are dated to that particular present moment. Not a bad thing, but very true in many cases. Then you have a select group that go beyond the convention of being stuck in time. This is the truest definition of what a classic is, something that transcends time. The act of being timeless, not bound to the past, but instead relevant and presentable in the present. The Wings of Honnêamise does this by the fact that it is it’s own world, a creation onto itself that looks one part old, some parts new, a little East, a little West, very familiar and unlimitedly foreign. Is this even Earth? Perhaps during the time of Atlantis, or Lemuria, or maybe an alternate dimension of time and space that could be now? If ever there is strength to storytelling is the world building that surrounds the plot and the characters. The world of The Wings of Honnêamise is second to none, in terms of setting, artistic detail, color and even sound (including the musical soundtrack). This is a fully functional organism that is complete.

WoH_3The story tells the rise of a young man, Shiro Lhadatt, who comes from ordinary and plain beginnings. He is nothing special, not too smart, or super heroic. His only passion is to fly jet aircraft and with his average, if not lackluster credentials, he ends up instead in the Space Force, who for the time being are just a rag tag group of men who don’t fit into standard military zeitgeist. Luck would change for Shiro when he meets a fundamentalist girl handing out religious pamphlets. Shiro, who being a red blooded young man, has more interest in the girl than her philosophies, but this soon changes. He soon finds purpose, both from the girl’s literature, but also the hardships she faces as well. He wants to achieve something, become a greater human being and this leads him to volunteer to become the first astronaut.

WoH_4In between insane training, a growing celebrity personalty, assignation attempts, the rumors that war may break out and a bowing to personal desires Shiro partakes one night with the girl he likes, he matures and grows his perspective in regards to what he is doing both as an astronaut, but also as a member of the human race. Combined with the high quality artistry, Shiro’s journey to space is a critical high point for anime, though not the most commercially successful. The Wings of Honnêamise is a large scale film that climaxes on the launch of Shiro into the upper and outer atmospheres, yet that does not eclipse the plot. Shiro’s monologue while in orbit becomes the capstone, the nice ribbon to tie up the package and gives us hope that someday we can go beyond our physical ties of our lives and reach for a goal that may be one part crazy and one part inspiring.

The Wings of Honnêamise is beloved by many and I give it the highest respect if only for the visual presentation, yet there is so much more as well. Due to the fact that I don’t have the love to repeatedly rewatch this film I still give it the highest marks for being what could have been a perfect moment for the Japanese animation industry. Gainax would continue on and create many popular and well known productions, but never again would they make anything as close to Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise.

#149 : Space Fantasia: 2001 Nights

How hard do you like your sci-fi? Aliens, fancy costumes, or flashy warp driving all around the universe have a place, but for this entry I will to put all that into a corner for just a moment. Let instead examine something more humane, slower paced and based in a probable future reality with technology that seems just around the corner. Something more based on the likes of Issac Assimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, or Stanislav Lem. In 1987 a now rare and often over looked one off release would provide answers to the questions stated. I present you with Space Fantasia: 2001 Nights.

2001N_1What if 2001: A Space Odyssey, or Solaris (and I am talking the original Soviet version) could have their essences juiced into the form of 1980s Japanese animation? Space Fantasia: 2001 Nights is beautiful looking for a simple OVA, with those Akio Sugino characters and the craft of TMS (Tokyo Movie Shinsha), that speaks of science fiction for a more mature palette. Yet 2001 Nights does not hold a candle to Kubrick’s 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Solaris, but it works in a more limited space. Both of these live action films in my opinion are sublime masterpieces though also very slow and tough to swallow at times. True auteur genius at work! So an outright comparison may be unfair, but it will be a starting point. On a personal note 2001 (Kubrick’s) is still one of my all time favorite films so when I found an anime called 2001 Nights I had to give it a try. And what I found was a story about hope, ambition and struggle all guised under the moniker of the true bond of love within one’s family.

2001N_2Could this be an odd play on the story Swiss Family Robinson? The story of 2001 Nights surrounds a family named Robinson… suprise. We begin with a married couple who volunteers frozen sperm and eggs that are sent on a far intergalactic voyage to populate a new planet since Earth is in it’s closing chapters. All the eventual offspring travel aboard a spaceship tied to a comet… a very clever way to travel. One by one the children are born giving a final total of 23, that eventually is cut by one due to a contracted illness. Once the spacecraft lands these 22 children are given an unspoiled utopia of a planet, a natural sight to be seen. The Robinson’s meanwhile have one child on Earth as well and he eventually plays into the role of the plot that by the end all becomes full circle.

2001N_32001 Nights shows a true testament of faith and belief in something higher than one’s self. A spiritual essence that we are not alone and someone is always watching out for you. And not whatever you call “God”, or aliens, but something more simple. Call it just mom and dad, or big brother. All life begins with a dream and in 2001 Nights the dream of growing beyond the limitations of a polluted Earth to start again fresh and unspoiled takes the ultimate paramount. Man playing “God”? Or maybe Man as the divine image of the essence of “God”, the universe, the great creator just continuing the very process that very beganoh so long ago. A new “Genesis” perhaps in the garden of not Eden, but Ozma instead?

2001N_4Originally based on the also named manga of 2001 Nights, the anime version takes a small bite out of the much larger story. Or perhaps, this is one plot interspersed in with several more that may end up all being one story in the end? The Robinson family’s tale is among these stories and I can admit this as I have a fragment of the 2001 Nights original release from VIZ. Some say the manga is better, but if you take the time to rewatch this hour long OVA a couple times, and connect the dots from previous viewings, you will begin to see the magic unfold. 2001 Nights is a treat and a blessing to those of us who still yearn for science fiction, space travel and wondering what is out there in the big unknown darkness, but have grown to accept more mature storytelling tastes.

#147 : Animated Classics of Japanese Literature

ACoJL_1Never judge a book by it’s cover… same goes for anything else that is packaged. Advertisers can sell you anything, so long as the branding is attractive to you. Sometimes the plainest of outer shells contain the richest and most profound inner contents; true beauty at it’s best. Let’s recap about books again for a moment, literature if you will. One of the best ways one can look at a culture is to examine the stories that they tell. These tales give the personal experiences, feelings and outlook of those who choose to write it all down and express. Anime often times gets big and over the top and strives for something newer, brighter, more exciting, etc. But what of the classic literary tales of Japan, don’t they deserve a voice as well? Of course they do and with Animated Classics of Japanese Literature you can have your cake and eat it too without ever reading a line of text.

… Of course if you don’t speak, or comprehend Japanese, you will more than likely be reading subtitles for Animated Classics of Japanese Literature, or any other anime unless you have, or choose the route of a dub in your native language. So in the end watching anime can be like reading a book… sort of. Don’t you feel smarter knowing you watch cartoons? No matter which way you slice it, you are going to be reading. …

ACoJL_2On it’s original release, Animated Classics of Japanese Literature went by another name. Sumitomo Life Insurance Youth Anime Complete Collection is the proper title as seen in Japan. The naming that I am familiar with and using in this entry, was used on the DVDs I found from the old Central Park Media catalog. An odd choice for that company back in the day, but I for one am glad that this was part of their repertoire. Similar to another Nippon Animation production, World Masterpiece Theater (Nippon animated both productions by the way), Animated Classics of Japanese Literature would translate native Japanese stories instead of the Western classics more familiar to the previous. Obviously! Except in the case of Animated Classics of Japanese Literature, these would be pocket sized entries as each episode, or two, or three, was a self contained story instead of the longer drawn out full series format. Hence we have an emphasis on the format of the short story rather than the longer novel.

ACoJL_3Even to this day I have yet to see the complete series. The long out of print DVDs released here in the U.S. only cover a dozen of the 34 total episodes. And if I remember correctly, a few more episodes were also available on VHS. With only about one third of the series under my belt I can safely give a proper analysis due to the overarching format being an omnibus collection of smaller stories. This is not for the usual otaku type searching for magical girls or giant robots. These are mundane stories, very plain and mostly ordinary. Many are very dramatic, or at times comedic, depending on the source. As a fan of World Masterpiece Theater this was a no brainer for myself as I enjoy seeing literary classics come to life from my favorite visual medium of animation. As a lover of Eastern culture and philosophy, I welcomed these stories into my home like a traveling friend. As I have grown up in the west, all of these tales are completely foreign to my native experience and serve as an appetizer to introduce me to more of Japan’s literary history. Many of these episodes were memorable, but I always seem to remember The Harp of Burma most fondly.

To finish off, let’s go back to the beginning… never judge a book by it’s cover. Animated Classics of Japanese Literature may not win awards for glorious designs or high end animation. Animated Classics of Japanese Literature is also, in many cases, not what we gravitate towards our choosing of anime subject matter. These are mostly common everyday stories, similar to many of the books we read in school, or choose to now, that pertain to our cultural definition. Often times these stories have lasting value and even with a more budget appearance, their golden centers still shine.

#145 : Crying Freeman

CF_1Crying Freeman… sex and violence… sexy people and intense fighting… bare naked bodies with tattoos and death on the par with Fist of the North Star. If action movies could be infused with cheesy late night erotic dramas they would come out as Crying Freeman. It’s like Golgo 13 sans the James Bond references and stoicism and injected instead with yakuza culture and a protoganist who is more humane than a cold blooded killing machine. Crying Freeman: not politically correct, over the top, erotic and totally not for children… it’s the type of anime that when you were young you stayed up and waited for you parents to go to sleep so you can experience it without their knowledge of what you were doing in the wee hours of the morning. “Hey kids when are you all gonna get some shut eye?”

CF_2Don’t ask my why, but the first episode of Crying Freeman does two things for me. One, I think of the George Michael song Careless Whisper, why was this not on the soundtrack it would have been amazing? “I’m never gonna dance again, Guilty feet have got no rhythm…” And then that saxophone line hits and then it’s all over… Now number two, I laugh and laugh hard. For an OVA that takes itself so seriously on being a ridiculous ultimate fantasy of masculine cock swagger, one can’t help but chuckle at times. Crying Freeman is not a comedy, but it sure can pass as one. In a total of six episodes I can recommend the first two as it sets the foundation of the story and I leave it up to you to finish the final four. By then it becomes repetitive and a top this crazy sexual, or action moment, again and again. … If anything watch the first episode, it’s so good at being bad it’s amazingly entertaining.

CF_3So here is the basic plot… a former artist is turned into a hired killer for the 108 Dragons by means of torture, interrogation and acupuncture. The only humanity left within him appears as crying when he frags someone due to a subconscious reflex. Our hero’s only hope is wanting to be a quote free man again who also has this habit of crying… now this title makes sense. During one mission he is spotted by a beautiful lady artist, which means the poor girl, who for no luck of her own accord, has to be silenced due to being a witness. She has just turned 29 and knowing that she is to be killed has only one wish. To… not… die… a virgin! OK, this is… different. Freeman eventually shows up and she confesses that he can kill her if she can go to bed with him. He agrees and it turns out… he is a virgin… too? SAY WHAT! Two gorgeous specimens of human ideal beauty and both have never had sex? Really? Seriously? Well it could happen to the best of us? You can laugh now if you wish, because I did. In the aftermath of joining together in coitus, a committed relationship would blossom and the plot now centers around Freeman saving his lover from harm. This is only the first episode and it seems so ridiculous, but I can’t help but say that I enjoyed it; who in their right mind came up with this?

CF_4The original manga was penned by the name of Kazuo Koike, who has a reputation for the bizarre and outlandish. I give this man props for being so mind blowing on a level I can’t even comprehend. The other side of course is the man who created the illustrations and character designs, one Ryochi Ikegami. He is the key to Crying Freeman’s biggest saving grace. The man’s style is beautiful and is a much more realistic rendering approach in regards to human anatomy and very much so, facial structure. This is not the usual cartoonish look most associated with anime, Ikegami’s talent is more like great figure drawing.

So often titles fit into the term ‘Manime’ (I hate that term) and Crying Freeman is no exception. The joy of Crying Freeman is in the fact that this is B-grade, maybe even C-grade schlock, but it does have a decent story… decent?… and can always be good if you need a laugh or a WTF moment. Sadly it still does not have George Michael, sigh.

Special : Watership Down

WD_1This is the real real world… this is nature interpreted through an artist’s particular vision and, or vernacular. A veritable John Constable, or even at times a J.M.W. Turner landscape coming to life with all the lush blues, greens and browns that echoes a quiet summer’s day with a punch of yellow and orange. An organic world of basic survival, gut instinct and presence within the moment. Except our vantage point of view is not from our familiar human senses, but from those of the animals of the wild we commonly call rabbits. This is the epic of the heroes journey set in an honest portrayal, a grand adaptation of the original source material (how often does that happen?) and a story that will last for thousands of years. This is the original animated version of Richard Adams’ Watership Down.

I am totally, totally breaking the rules with this entry. Watership Down has absolutely nothing to do with Japan in either the source material, or the production. It is British in origin, British in terms of production and vocal casting and American with director Martin Rosen. The adaptation of Richard Adams’ novel technically should not be here… yet I MUST include Watership Down on this website. I love this film and draw so much inspiration from it. It may be perhaps my all time favorite animated creation. So much so that in one of my classes in college, I used Watership Down as visual material for one of my best design projects of my academic career. Watership Down is not just any other movie, it is my personal spiritual myth, my Holy Book.

WD_2Watership Down begins with a core element that is something we must all face, that of the unexplained. Fiver’s sixth sense of impending danger and Hazel’s trust in him to go on a great journey to find a safe land, paradise, Arcadia (Captain Harlock reference) is not of the rational. I often think sometimes animals in the wild have an intelligence that a portion of humanity has lost. A true deep connection to the universe that does not question the motives behind signs, or feelings. Call it whatever you wish, but to our lapine friends they put their trust to Lord Frith. For it was Lord Frith who bestowed the gifts of swiftness and cunning to El-ahrairah, the original chief of the rabbit race. With cunning, quick decision making, or trickery and a fast stride a rabbit can and does survive. Yet often we humans lose this ability to see and feel our true essence because of the conformity structures we try to belong to. When one “Let’s go and let’s God” (God as your personal definition) we become closer to those of the wild and in essence our truest selves.

WD_3Hazel is not the only one to believe Fiver’s calling. A group of deserters join including a former Owsla (Army) officer, Bigwig, to find this special land of safety. They must traverse unknown terrain, encounter obstacles and at times lose a comrade. They must learn just who to trust and keep faith that their journey is true even when deviation becomes tempting. With a gorgeous film score, exceptional voice acting (I became a fan of John Hurt immediately) and the natural style of the artwork, both characters and backgrounds, I often feel that I am outside in the world of nature and with our little friends on their quest. Sometimes fiction looks more real than fact? Watership Down is a masterpiece that took itself seriously and is a true labor of love. This movie can’t hide from the apparent details.

WD_4Animation and in particular the traditional painted cel has always been a source of joy and a personal sanctuary for me. Watership Down is a testament to this style. After the movie, I felt obliged to buy and read the book which I have gone threw a handful of times. Either medium provides the depth and assurance I sometimes need to know that I am one with this universe and that the cycles that we all live through are worth the ups and downs. Many talk about the so called violence in this film, but they are missing the true core. This is an honest and mature look at our lives and not some flashy over dramatization to appeal to a low common denominator. To Richard Adams, Martin Rosen, Angela Morley, the cast and production crew I heartedly thank you for giving all of us such a beautiful epic.

#140 : The Wild Swans

WS_1I love the work of Hans Christian Andersen. His stories are often dark in tone, filled with allegory and meaning and are considered essential myths that we continue to have a need for… even in today’s climate. Yet some stories pass by us unnoticed until just the right time. Until a week ago I had never heard of the Wild Swans, but when I found that this story was adapted into a feature film created by Toei I had to see it immediately. I must also state that there is also another story collected by the Brothers Grimm that is very similar and from general reading it seems their tale, The Six Swans, has more the influence on this movie. I had only one thing to say… Hi, can I be your friend? And as usual, seems always the case with anime, we got along splendidly. Let me tell you about our date together!

WS_2Much like another story many of us know very well by Andersen, The Little Mermaid, there is much that is similar, yet also different. Both stories were animated by Toei in the mid 1970s, The Little Mermaid in 1975 and The Wild Swans in 1977, and share the basic style and form of the era. Both stories deal with prolonged sacrifice and hardship in the form of being away from loved ones and not being able to communicate vocally. In the case of The Little Mermaid, Marina could not speak due to giving up her voice, and tail as well, to be amongst the human world and be with her prince. As for the Wild Swans, our protagonist Elisa does not loose her voice at all. She takes a personal vow of complete silence as part of her cross to bear. Though she can speak, she promises not to.

The story begins on a happy note as we meet a lost man on horseback in a forest. He is greeted by a witch who promises him a way back home if he can grant a wish for her daughter. The attractive young lady asks to become his betrothed as she has learned that his wife has passed recently. He accepts and returns to tell his children the good news. Wow, saying yes to a woman you just met without even a date or anything? Some men are quite desperate! And you know, “some beautiful roses have wicked thorns.” But I digress, he uses a magical ball of yarn to open the location where his children are to give the news of their new mother. Everyone is happy, except that conniving woman. She is jealous of the children (what a surprise!) and plans a trap by stealing the ball of yarn and meeting the children herself.

WS_3Upon their meeting miss jealous pants bestows gifts, which the six boys accept without hesitation. These garments that are given turn them into swans and when the seventh child, a daughter, Elisa arrives she sees the damage that has occurred and stands against the evil woman. Yet all is not lost, at night time the boys return to human form and comfort Elisa. Hmm, sounds like Swan Lake? Then, much like swans born naturally, they migrate away when the proper season beckons. During this time Elisa learns she can make six garments out of nettles that will return her brothers to their natural human state. The only reservations are that she cannot show any disdain, or complaint during the process and that she has a limited amount of time. Because of this she shuts herself off from the rest of the world and vows a life of silence. Now we know why Elisa losses her ability to communicate.

WS_4For an emotionally riveting plot that seems to point towards total tragedy, The Wild Swans does end up having an optimistic outcome. This was a surprise for me and even though I was ready for an all out cry fest ready to see something sad, I still had a little tear in my eye for witnessing a happy ending. A true tale of love and sacrifice that I can put on par with Night on the Galactic Railroad, The Wild Swans shows that a dedication to love will pay off with rewards unimaginable. And if this movie borrows from either Hans Christian Andersen, or the Brothers Grimm, or both at the same time, it does not matter. It’s a beautiful piece of storytelling and that is all one needs in a great anime.

#136 : Alpen Rose

Spinning around with my bare feet on the grass at a park I begin to sing, “The hills are alive with the sound of… Alpen Rose. Alpen Rose. Those red flowers. These cross shackles that hold me…” … Love and romance, adventure and suspense, mystery and amnesia and being on the run from an obsessed bishonen Count and Nazis during the eve of WWII… are you excited yet? Pack your bags because you are scheduled for a tour of Switzerland, Austria and France circa 1939/1940. All aboard!

AR_1Based off a manga and debuting on television in 1985, Honoo no Alpenrose first came into my life through a condensed two episode OVA compilation released in 1986. If only I could see  the original 20 episode TV series? I like a non-abridged version whenever possible. Thankfully this version fell into my lap and became a recent priority. So what exactly is Alpen Rose? To begin the title refers to two specific references. The first is a flower that grows in the Alps region. During winter snows and freezing temperatures this flower never loses it’s will to live and stays in full bloom. Impressive! Alpen Rose is also the title of an important piece of music toward the plot of the series. An anthem to be precise! A subtle and tender song speaking out against Nazi oppression. A song to rise up and believe in life and freedom… very fitting to be named after a flower that represents choosing life and beauty in the face of strife and hardship.

AR_2We begin after a plane crash in the heart of Switzerland. A young girl with her pet parrot returns to consciousness unsure of who she is. She is soon met by a boy her age, Lundi, who gives her the name Jeudi and helps her start a new life. By the way the parrot is named Printemps by the way (All this French! I like it!) A few years pass, Jeudi is now a teenager and is working as a nurse’s aide when she is reunited with her beloved Lundi. Then the chase begins when both characters encounter a bishonen count who has loose ties to the German Nazi’s and has an obsession with Jeudi. She is totally underage… creepy! Along the way Jeudi and Lundi meet many new friends, but the most important would become a third party, an young anti-Nazi composer prodigy, Leonhardt/Leon, perhaps my favorite character (has to be those locks of hair!). This is turning into a love quartet. OK Jeudi for whom does your heart desire for?

AR_3Alpen Rose is one of those titles where I can’t help but love, yet I do have mixed feelings. Often times an anime series starts off with a great plot line and resolves at around the half way mark. The show continues on, but it just doesn’t feel the same. Jeudi’s journey to rediscover her past identity, find her parents and solve the riddle of why the song Alpen Rose has special significance made the first half a nail biter. From there it became a prelude towards the war between the Allies and the Axis. Our cast of characters became  part of the bigger zeitgeist of the moment. Yet the second half did reveal some new twists and discoveries which provided interest. The show is solid and even paced throughout, but the ending was a little rushed… now begins WWII… the end. Hey now!

AR_4Many big names are tied with the production of Alpen Rose. Tatsunoko was the studio responsible for bringing the show to life… and they have a great track record! The music was composed by Joe Hisaishi, who would go onto super stardom scoring films for Hayao Miyazaki. In fact he already did Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind the previous year! Often times when encountering shojo material I often run into magical girl shows and high school romantic comedies. Both genres have merit, but I have a soft spot for the historic romantic drama. Something a little more serious with an element of old classic style. Alpen Rose fills these qualifications fantastically and I am so thankful I finally got to see the entire TV series. I will watch this one again!